Obituary: Gregory Stewart

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The Independent Online
Gregory Allen Stewart, dancer, teacher, choreographer: born Washington DC 9 November 1959; died Washington DC 6 November 1993.

GREGORY STEWART's career as a concert dancer included an unprecedented series of performances as a member of three world-class New York City dance companies: The Dance Theater of Harlem, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company, and the Martha Graham Dance Company. Stewart's mastery of the two main American modern dance techniques, Graham and Horton (used by the Graham and Ailey companies respectively), was shared with the world further during a five-year teaching and performance career in Japan. His achievement was all the more remarkable because of his origins in the black ghetto of Washington DC. His death at the age of 33 from Aids-related complications is a tragic loss to the international dance scene.

Stewart's earliest experiences in dance as a young teenager revolved around government-funded after-school dance contests where students competed for prizes. He was often inspired by the movement of popular entertainers such as James Brown. Stewart won these prizes on an almost weekly basis. Encountering fear and racial prejudice in the established ballet-training schools, he abandoned early efforts in classical dance and instead toured the Eastern seaboard with a small ethnic group, African Rhythms.

In 1977, auditions were held for dancers in the film The Whizz. Although in his final year of high school, Stewart could not resist the opportunity to work with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. He auditioned and was selected, nearly jeopardising his graduation. This incident was the first of many where he defied authority.

Upon graduation he moved to New York, working as a dancer in the New York State Opera Ballet until he joined Arthur Mitchell's all-black company, Dance Theater of Harlem. His greatest role at DTH was in Balanchine's Bugaku.

In 1981 Stewart re-emerged in New York for an audition with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the world's pre-eminent black dance company. From among 300, he was selected to join the first company. Stewart remained with the Ailey company for three and a half years. He was featured in such Ailey signature works as Revelations and Night Creatures. His stormy presence and the high drama of his ability to push technique to its limits found expression in Elisa Monte's Treadings, and again as the drug addict in Talley Beatty's Stack-Up. His greatest hour though came as the character White Light in Chu San Goh's Spectrum. For his performance of this ballet he received nine curtain calls. In 1985 Stewart set out to conquer the 'white' dance world and was selected as a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company from an audition of more than 100 dancers. His work with Graham included the role of the Minotaur in her masterpiece, Errand Into The Maze. It was during this time that Stewart became addicted to crack cocaine, and he sought to make himself well by moving to a country where drugs were illegal and the law was enforced, so he moved to Japan.

Overcoming his addiction in Japan, Stewart immediately became a powerful force in an exciting dance scene where genre, ancient and modern, Asian and Western were being integrated.

Stewart embarked on a choreographic career just as the announcement of his illness came. His final works were several versions of Men: The Dance Show featuring four expert modern dancers from around the world, performed in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. He taught modern dance throughout Japan as an instructor for Japan Integrated Academies. The mark he made, both personal and professional was indelible everywhere he went.

(Photograph omitted)